Looking Beyond the Borders: Obama’s visit to India

It may be a wrong way to phrase it thus – for India in 2015, the underlying mood is we can. In the global context, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has firmly established his position as the man of the times, paving the way for a proactive foreign policy; turning on the charm and yet determined to maintain the nation’s standing. Free trade agreements and summits with the US, Russia, China and Japan tinged with economic diplomacy have people vying for India’s favour. The entente cordiale with the US, and President Obama’s visit have been the icing on the cake. Given this freewheeling spirit of enterprise and brotherhood, one needs to take into account how we have proceeded to reach the point where we are, and how this would affect our standing with our immediate neighbours. Will China act to our benefit, or as a detriment? How will our long-time alignment with the Russian federation be affected with the flurry of diplomatic flurries with the western world, given the seething situation in the Crimean – and more importantly, how the fraying relationship with Pakistan would be affected given our current position.

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The first thing to note is that the President Obama’s visit is clearly one of the high watermarks of our foreign policy: and what’s more remarkable is the feebleness of any voices of dissent against this alignment. It is remarkable to see how our alliances are spurred on by the geopolitical landscape: the previous dealing with the Soviets were somewhat of a response to the American bias towards Pakistan, and Kissinger’s policies, especially the underlying focus on Beijing; in our times, the Chinese are in high gears, and it is this vision of a powerful, almost belligerent China in the surrounding regions that has aided this relationship. Acting in concert is the new wave of radical terrorism that has raised its head in the Middle East, and the souring of American sentiment in the wake of the drone strikes in Pakistan that has America searching for a stabilizing and assertive partner.

China has now taken the stance of a giant consumer of assets: a mildly amusing picture given the general perception as the world’s manufacturer. Giant leaps in the lifestyle of mainstream Chinese has coincided with extraordinary demands of food, energy and also, openness. The PLA has taken the role of a swashbuckling musketeer, making forays into India, Nepal and Central Asia, while the skies and waters of the South China Sea have been charged with aggressive posturing with Japan, Korea and the USA. The vision of an Asian Infrastructure Investment bank seems to be fraught with both unforeseen exciting and concerning choices, not to mention the expanding influence of China in the region. On the other hand, Pakistan has been facing the brunt of proxies it now cannot handle. It has been sliding back economically, with a fractured mandate, and a political maelstrom following the teaming up of Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Quadri which had led to uninterrupted blockades and protests. These simmering sentiments were swallowed up by one of the most horrific terror incidents to date, an attack on an army school in Peshawar leading to the deaths of 134 children. This has lead to some reversal in Pakistan’s double games – making itself a Western bastion against jihadist terrorism and yet providing groups sanctuary, training and money. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s position has weakened, while Imran Khan seems to be tottering from one side to the next, leaving an army administration, uninterested in leading the country, to focus on foreign policy and internal security. It isn’t all thorns however – the appointment of General Raheel Sharif, who has actively sought to see jihadis as the country’s greatest threat, and has sought American aid in countering the same, as well as the stepping down of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry would enable Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to cement his position by allowing further drone strikes in the north-western provinces.

The joint statement from Prime Minister Modi and President Obama has significant advances and initiatives, especially focusing on strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions. It doesn’t have much to add however, on the Indo-Pak relationship, and on Afghanistan. It is almost indicative of the sharp rift in India-Pakistan ties, following the Indian government’s move of cancelling talks between the foreign secretaries of both nations, as well as the sharp policies of “zero-tolerance” and shelling in response to firing across the LOC. This tougher line has both drawbacks and benefits – but in a time of political upheavals in the region, this may go down rather poorly, and may spawn several shadowy proxies to battle. The statement spoke on the importance of sustainable political order in Afghanistan: which sounds promising in President Ashraf Ghani’s standing, both in his nation as well as in the international arena, followed by bilateral talks on long-standing concerns and prospects with Pakistan; however, there still is the looming shadow of the incredibly high violence generated by the Taliban insurgency. India’s obvious concerns lie with the latter, and in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s control over the terrorist groups, and ensuring they don’t wreak havoc on Indian soil.

The level of closeness may generate concern with China, given how President Xi Jinping’s visit coincided with border incursions by Chinese troops, and the aggressive stance adopted by the Chinese with regards to their neighboring states. All is not lost – from the Chinese standpoint, Pakistan is undergoing a lot of turmoil, and seen in context of religious extremism, especially in the Uighur region, they may stand to be cautious given links between these extremist groups. Also, there is concern with India’s growing interests shared with the Japanese, and it has resulted in a large amount of Chinese investment in Gujarat. However, there can also be a perceived threat in the way Sri Lankan elections have swung and given way to a pro-India leader, as opposed to the former President’s pro-China stance, and posturing in the high seas. The territorial disputes overshadowed the importance of this visit, but there is still a good scope for repairing and rebuilding the Indo-Chinese relationship.

President Obama’s visit has also coincided with the finalization of the Indian-American civil nuclear agreement. The accident liabilities and administrative tracking notwithstanding, we seem to have paved the way for a boatload of Indian nuclear projects, with a special mention for the boost to our indigenous nuclear program, given the Prime Minister’s vision of ‘Make in India’. Lower electrical energy prices for the upcoming decades, combined with the slump in oil prices and the general slowdown in the global economy spell magic for Indian producers. The takeaway from all this: there is a need for careful and thoughtful forms of co-operation which can aid in furthering India’s ambitions and standing, without straining the policy of engaging with all parties; given this, we should stand to see our nation poised as a reliable and powerful representative of the South Asian stage.

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